How Pantone picks the color of the year

Every year the Pantone Color Institute announces the color of the year. But how exactly do they make that choice? 

Every year the Pantone Color Institute announces the color of the year. But how exactly do they make that choice? 

You’ve probably seen one before. A color swatch from a company called Pantone.

Originally a paint company founded in 1963 by Lawrence Herbert, its mission soon became making a system of identifying, matching and communicating colors so that they were consistent across the print and textile design industries.

This led to the Pantone matching system, a book that’s now standard across these fields, as well as digital design. And it’s a system made up of the iconic colored swatches we know today.

But there’s another way in which Pantone has established its relevance, an occasion that happens each December: the sometimes influential, sometimes controversial announcement of the “Color of the Year”.

First done in the year 2000, the color of the year influences the decisions designers, brands and regular people make in the colors they use over the next twelve months. Or is it these people that influence the choice of color the company picks?

Each year, in around March, Pantone’s Color Institute starts the process of identifying candidates for its color of the year.

The decision-making committee travels to London, Paris and Milan with extra trips tacked onto the side to get a sense of the colors appearing a lot in these influential cities.

“You start to notice certain colors getting more attention in the fashion field [first],” Laurie Pressman, Vice President of the Pantone Color Institute tells Glamour.

“We look at films coming up. What colors are being used? Is there a new effect being used? We look at upcoming cars, [because] when you talk about technology, you have to look at the finishes on cars because they are light-years ahead in the technology they use to create those colors.”

The committee then studies the psychology of these colors to discover their influence on human thought processes, emotions and physical reactions.

They analyse how the colors interact with other colors. They look at the art world and take into account certain colors being shown in a collection that will travel the world, and they observe the colors being used for products produced by notable brands.

Interestingly, the committee’s choice is rarely a new color. Pantone update their color library every 2 and a half years, which helps them stay ahead of trends.
Yet, trending though they might be, the color institute’s annual choice is often controversial.

In 2013, when it picked emerald green as the color of the year, people either liked it or hated it, according to Pressman. The previous year’s choice, in 2012, of Tangerine Tango prompted an orange averse woman to call her to express her distaste.

But, “Even if you have a knee-jerk reaction to it, if you see it appearing on a website or in a store window or an anchor wearing it on television, you start to pick up on it and think, OK, hmm, maybe I need to get something….” with emerald green in it,” Pressman says.

And the choice of color of the year is more than just a reflection of colors we’re starting to see, it can reflect what’s needed at the time.

The company’s 2016 choice or choices of Rose Quartz and Serenity was a response to the rising use of what’s now widely known as “millennial pink”, and a reflection of society’s increased blurring of gender norms, with pink, once known as a boy’s color, and blue being being worn by a younger demographic interchangeably.

2017’s choice of Greenery was a reaction to the 2016 US presidential election result and the need for renewal. And 2018’s choice of Ultra Violet continued in that vein “communicating originality, ingenuity and visionary thinking pointing toward the future,” according to Pantone’s website.

While it’s hard to define how tangibly Pantone’s color of the year affects the choices designers and brands make in the long-term, particularly knowing there’ll be some other color chosen in another twelve months, you will definitely see it popping up on products, at least on the day it’s announced. In recent years, Pantone has partnered with a number of brands to help market its chosen color of the year.

Advertising agency, Sub Rosa, has worked with the color company since 2013 to market the color of the year, primarily through press and the creative community. A lot of that marketing comes through brand partnerships who will often release limited runs of products in that year’s chosen color, which sometimes out performs a brand’s regular hues.

But, apart from Cerulean, a color whose name, once uttered by Meryl Streep’s character, takes center stage in a pivotal scene of The Devil Wears Prada, I can’t for the life of me say I’ve had many run-ins with other previous colors of the year.

The chicken and egg question still stands: how much impact does Pantone’s color of the year have on the real world and does the real world have on it? I’m still not sure.

But what I do know is that every December brands, designers and influencers take notice of and start conversations around a little swatch representing a particular hue and a former paint company called Pantone.

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